I keep thinking of Dad’s gesture from the passenger seat of the car after he and my brother Jon dropped me off at the airport recently. Dad is 83, a retired chemist, a former smoker, and the strongest and bravest man I know. His is now on oxygen, struggling to stay active with less than 20% of his lung capacity left. When I think of his gesture, I smile tearfully, feeling a mixture of joy, awe, and sorrow. Joy because I love the man deeply, awe because he lived his life on his terms, and sorrow because, now, he must work very hard to do the smallest things. Crossing a room, getting in and out of the car, or making Mom a drink all leave him exhausted and breathless.
After getting my suitcase, I hugged Jon goodbye, thanking him for helping mom and dad as much as he has for the past few years. Next, I hugged Dad, feeling Dad’s sharp, shrunken, eighty-three-year-old bones though his skin and his sweatshirt, hugging him gently as if he were a fragile, small bird I held cupped in my hands. As I checked my bag, I turned to look back at them sitting in the car. Dad, relegated to the passenger seat, caught my eye with his. This look was unique to him: mischievous and challenging, realistic, defiant, confident, serious, and impish. His eyes smiled wide above the tight little smile behind the plastic tube feeding him oxygen. He slowly, deliberately, defiantly, raised his skinny, little fist out the window, looking directly at me. As I raised my fist in a complementary salute and smiled back, his eyes twinkled with the knowledge that I knew his heart and mind and he knew mine. Dad was bravely facing the inevitable threshold we all must cross one day– into eternity–with his eyes wide open, his conscience clear, and no illusions, understanding the wonderfully terrible and ironically humorous human condition: our unavoidable awareness of ourselves in relation to the world past, present, and future.
“When you’re dead, you’re dead,” he once told me during one of our many conversations about our shared perceptions of the world that did not include dogma, metaphysics, or an afterlife. We agreed that this world was enough. It supplied enough mystery, complexity, and ambiguity that a superimposed layer of metaphysical causes and effects appeared to us unnecessary at best, unhealthy at worst.
Dad’s raised fist revealed our shared understanding of his love for me and for this world, his desire to struggle on as long as he could, and his unwavering certainty that we are born, we live, and we die in a natural world governed by physics and chemistry. Dad’s smile also revealed his equally unwavering sense that humor comforts us in the face of our limitations, that laughing at ourselves, and at our predicaments, not only frees us from our cumbersome self-importance, it also diminishes death’s omnipotence to just another chore we are obliged to do.